Televising Shakespeare -- the Jonathan Miller way

Bardolatry bugs Jonathan Miller. The new executive producer of "The Shakespeare Plays," the unprecedented six-year Public Television series which will eventually present all 37 of the Bard's plays, is annoyed by those who idolize and idealize Shakespeare, especially when they say there is a single, "primal" way to produce Shakespeare.

Chatting with him over an impromptu 8.a.m. breakfast (I bought a couple of meager muffins on my way), I am impressed by the obvious but unobtrusive intelligence, delightful wit, and edge-of-disaster honesty of this Cambridge graduate, a qualified doctor who has written, directed, acted, and produced a wide range of extraordinary theatrical productions.

Mr. Miller manages to retain more than a slight measure of humility, despite the fact that he is often referred to as a contemporary "Renaissance man."

As he unfolds his lank Lincolnesque frame to squat unceremoniously while he carefully gathers fallen crumbs from his muffin, I observe that this tall, slim, man with the classic Titian-like large-nosed face of a medieval Venetian might well be spearing the crumbs with his timeless Greco-like bony fingers. But, alas, upon closer examination, he is merely picking them up between two long fingers, like the contemporary man that he is.

We are meeting because he is here to do a job not completely to his liking: promote his first season as executive producer of the BBC/Time/Life/WNET-NY Shakespeare plays. But he seems not at all reluctant to talk about anything which comes up in the animated conversation, even so early in the morning.

"Bardolatry can go to absurd lengths," he explains. "You can say that everything Shakespeare wrote is of equal value and therefore we must keep the whole lot. Now that may be very interesting from the point of view of a library , but it's certainly not interesting for entertainment. I think that Bardolatry can go too far in many directions -- toward retaining the whole text because it is 'holy writ,' or towards a stifling reverence for so-called traditional presentations."

Mr. Miller indicates that he feels slightly restricted by an agreement, previous to his arrival on the scene, which arranged that all the plays would be done in "traditional" costume. "It was in the slightly misconceived belief," he says smiling sadly with a mouth which, as almost always, turns up at the edges to belie its own seeming unhappiness, "that there is in fact a standard version. That is a tremendously philistine view of modern theater. The most spectacular and engaging version of Shakespeare that has been done in the last 25 years was Peter Brooks's 'Midsummer Night's Dream,' done on stilts inside a gymnasium, which introduced audiences to the play in the most beguiling and gripping and interesting way, but still honored the text. It was wonderful.

"I believe that there is no definitive version of any playwright. The story of immortality of any great playwright is really the story of his ability to invite and survive successive transformations of his work.

"All productions of Shakespeare are 'messed-around' productions of Shakespeare. There's absolutely no way in which you can present some sort of original ground-level version of the 'real thing,' which would give audiences the impression that they were in the presence of what Shakespeare intended. We have very little idea of what Shakespeare intended. It's extremely dubious that , even if we knew, we would be able to present that, and whether it would interest a modern audience.

"Every single production of Shakespeare since the day it was created has consisted of a transformation of Shakespeare. I think that's true of any playwright who outlives his own wildest dreams of posterity. Shakespeare himself presumably had no conception of his plays being performed 400 years after his demise. And if he did, in some wild moment of ambition, think of himself as having a 400-year future, he presumably thought of the future as being the 16th century carried on by other methods. The whole point about "the whirlygig of time' is that it brings in all sorts of changes which cannot be anticipated.

"So my Shakespeare is not Shakespeare for all time -- it is Shakespeare for as long as it holds up. Any director or producer who has any ambition for longer than that is either a fool or a villain."

Are the Miller productions especially tailored for television audiencies?

"Yes. We videotape in studios. We don't take cameras on location. I don't think it is appropriate for Shakespeare. Shakespeare is a theatrical convention , a dramatic convention, not realistic drama. I'm doing studio versions of Shakespeare in an attempt to find some sort of idiom within the television screen which is related to the theatrical convention of the 'wooden O' on which Shakespeare produced these things.

"One has to acknowledge that these plays were written for unfurnished, unscenic stages in which people did not dress in the costume of the period to which the play referred. That's why it is a grotesque mistake to set Shakespeare's Roman plays in anything that looks like ancient Rome. Paradoxically, the more accurate our archaeology becomes, the more inconsistent the play with the seting. Anyone who purports to set 'Julius Caesar' in a Rome with Roman columns really has misunderstood not only Shakespeare but the nature of the relationship of a work of dramatic literature to the perspective of history. It comes out with opera, but it is much more apparent with Shakespeare.

"Shakespeare's version of Roman antiquity was clouded by ignorance, distorted by wishful thinking, and was in no sense the Rome which we can now reconstitute with all our contemporary elaborate resources. So, we should present the thing in the Rome that Shakespeare would have visualized. Probably as Veronese, a Venetian contemporary of Shakespeare, visualized it in his paintings.

"What i have done with "Antony and Cleopatra' (PBS, Monday, 8-11 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) is to go to Veronese too. Here was somebody painting in the 1970s, thinking of Roman and Greek antiquity. If you look at his paintings in the National Gallery you will see the outrageous view the 16th century had of the dress of the past.

"And the result is that Shakespeare's drama is consistent with that vision. If you take him literally and set these people spouting Tudor verse in front of Augustan Rome, it is nonsensical. Shakespeare's productions were done in modern Elizabethan dress. Until the end of the 18th century, the people on stage were wearing more or less the same costumes as the people in the audience. And, of course, women didn't perform at all. Boys dressed as women on the Shakespeare stage."

Since interviewing Jonathan Miller I have viewed "Antony and Cleopatra" and found that Mr. Miller follows through his ideas in the actual production: You will find no elaborate Egyptian headdresses, no Hollywood versions of rome or the Nile, not even an especially fascinating Cleopatra. As played by Jane Lapotaire (with Colin Blakely as Antony), she is a matronly suburban (Alexandria , that is) housewife-empress, having a kind of last fling with an aging lover.

It may have its own version of authenticity with its nature of Renaissance and classical costuming, but after a couple of hours, expertly acted and directed as it is, it may have you yearning for the glamorous phoniness of Elizabeth Taylor as Manchiewicz's movie Cleopatra or the bubbling vixenry of Vivien Leigh in Shaw's version.

why do this particular Shakespeare series?

He shrugs. "It seemed an interesting challenge. I'm almost through. I am also doing a series of interviews with 15 psychologists for the BBc which should be in the US in about a year. I must admit I also needed the money to live. That's why one goes from one thing to the next. [His Body In Question," recently aired in America, and the book based upon it.]

"The idea of making a lot of money, a big hit on Broadway, a big successful movie, making a million dollars -- I can't understand what the point of that would be. I've got everything I want -- a warm house, a wife who earns money, children who are growing up and who ask only for enough money to pay for jeans occasionally and school fees. I sleep well at night. I have enough food. As long as I can buy all the books I need and can occasionally go to Italy, I am happy. I don't want anything else. The only thing money means to me is that it enables me to say 'Buzz off' so that I can have the independence to do what I want to do. But I don't want to work in the theater -- what I would like to do is study earthworms and brains.

"The only person I would ever have liked to have been is Charles Darwin. He had the life of a comfortable retired country gentleman who was able to have a vision of nature from the comfort and decency of his own home. I can't imagine anything nicer than that.

I cannot bear vulgarity. I cannot bear the 20th century because of its vulgarity. There's a wonderful essay by Ortega called 'The Dehumanization of Art.' One of the terrible things I share with Ortega is my objection to one fallout of democracy --entertain everybody, or that anything is good if it has huge sales. If that were true, where would Proust be?

Jonathan Miller shakes his head sadly, resignedly, wisely -- and all simultaneously -- as he once again bends over to scoop up the crumbs of his breaskfast. As we walk to the door he remarks, "Everything has to be socko or boffo -- it's a fallout of our society."

Well, Miller's Shakespeare is not socko, but it is a challenging adventure in Shakespeare, a la Jonathan Miller.

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